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Kashmir isn't Bosnia

Kashmir isn't Bosnia

Author: Rajiv Dogra
Publication: The Pioneer
Date: February 4, 2009
URL: http://www.dailypioneer.com/154218/Kashmir-isn't-Bosnia.html

But Barack Hussein Obama's Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, may be tempted to expand his role and bully India into toeing a dangerous line to serve American interests in the region. This could happen soon if Obama fails to deliver on the home front

Barack Hussein Obama can uniquely claim to be of many worlds. He has the politically correct African lineage, an Islamic middle name and he is a practising Christian. He has lived in Indonesia and travelled to countries as diverse as Pakistan. And he is not afraid of admitting that he has done drugs. This candour is endearing and disarming in equal measure.

It has served him well up to now. Rather too well actually. Otherwise who could imagine just two years back that a junior first time Senator of dark hue would soon challenge and vanquish a formidable rival like Ms Hillary Clinton? No one gave him a serious chance then. But Mr Obama decided to punch far above his weight. The rest is history.

Up to now it has been a dream run for him. It must be said to his credit that he has worked hard and fought against all odds. But the challenges so far have been in the nature of campaign debates, words that could be spun to weave dreams for people. And Mr Obama can craft words that mesmerise, enthuse, and leave a warm glow. But throughout the campaign his love for abstract concepts also came through. He did the same during his acceptance speech, turning 'yes we can' into a rap raga. It sounded nice but left the action undefined. Now it is time for action.

Mr Obama is definitely a driven man. His actions as President will be calibrated with one eye to their effect on his legacy. He wants to manage expectations in such a way that midway through his term people should say that he did well by them. Therefore, his twin objectives will be to play the 'pace-maker' domestically and 'peace-maker' abroad.

In his first role he would like to restore public confidence in the economy. Some priorities there are to invest in infrastructure projects and to set up the post-carbon energy platform. Perhaps his advisers have everything tied down to the last detail; after all so far he has choreographed every major action of his carefully.

But his financial package is already drawing criticism from Republicans and skeptical comment by the realists. His ambitious hope of providing employment through this package for four to five million people may remain a noble intent. How can he provide quick employment when the record shows that bureaucracy takes an average of two years to clear a project?

He may be a remarkable man, but he is also made of flesh and blood like other human beings. He cannot walk on water. When people discover that uncomfortable truth through his stumbles and failures on the economy, there may be irrational extremes of disappointment. The fact is that he is inexperienced. It is also a sad record of history that very few individuals can make a difference.

When the domestic difficulties become too intractable, foreign relations offer a convenient zone of limelight. The 'pace-maker' may then aspire to be the 'peace-maker.' That this is not far from his mind is obvious from the appointments he announced during his visit to the State Department. And therein lie the seeds of our concern. Mr Obama made two appointments: Mr George Mitchell as Special Envoy for West Asia and Mr Richard Holbrooke as Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In style the two are as different as cheese from chalk. Mr Mitchell is a politician and a former Senate majority leader. He brings a patient touch to negotiations and encourages consensus. This was evident when he skillfully promoted the Northern Ireland peace process as an honest broker.

Mr Holbrooke is a career diplomat who attained superstar status after shepherding the Dayton peace talks that ended the Bosnian war in mid-1990s. But he is not a popular man in Serbia or for that matter in most of the orthodox Christian Balkans. He himself doesn't like to be reminded of his unsuccessful efforts earlier in Saigon.

Mr Holbrooke, unlike Mr Mitchell, is not soft-spoken. Hard charging is a term often used to describe him politely. Abrasive is a tighter fit, and the candid employ this term for him. His negotiating technique is to sight the opportunity and bulldoze his way through. This intensity ends up alienating people.

Like all driven men, Mr Holbrooke is fond of missions impossible. And like his new boss, he is conscious that he has been given a chance by destiny to carve his place in history. Therefore, he would want to succeed in this mission. And he knows he has a limited time to accomplish this because already the war in Afghanistan has lasted long and America's allies may not be able to sustain their present force levels.

But to succeed in Afghanistan he will have to succeed with Pakistan first. There, he may meet more than his match. Pakistanis are masters at combining savage cruelty with injured innocence. They will pretend to take action against the LeT and others of that ilk, but it will be largely pretence. Meanwhile, the Pakistanis will sing their theme song for Mr Holbrooke's benefit that if the 'Kashmir issue' is resolved, all the problems in the region would magically dissolve.

Mr Holbrooke was not assigned to West Asia because both the Palestinians and the Israelis would have met his ferocious style with equal ferocity. Here, in our region, only the Pakistanis will use guile, persuasion and duplicity to achieve their goals. India wouldn't want to displease.

So while we flounder for the least offensive phrase, Mr Holbrooke may already have readied himself to bulldoze us in the direction that he has decided upon. He realises, as Pakistan does, that the formality of his designation which describes him as the 'Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan' is just a formality. Pakistan will encourage him to take on a wider regional role.

Men like Mr Obama and Mr Holbrooke are driven by a sense of their own destiny. They do not have the patience to listen politely to involved logic that we adduce. Therefore, if Bosnia is a precedent to go by, then soon we may have an interfering busybody on the 'Kashmir issue'.

- The writer, a senior diplomat, is a former Ambassador of India.

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